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Smalis v. Allegheny County Board of Property Assessment

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 16, 2014


OPINION Re: ECF Nos. 15, 17, 19, 28

MAUREEN P. KELLY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Ernest Smalis ("Plaintiff" or "Smalis") initiated this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Allegheny County Board of Property Assessment, Appeal and Review ("BPAAR"), Allegheny County Law Department ("County Law Department"), City of Pittsburgh Law Department ("City Law Department"), and City of Pittsburgh School District ("School District" and, together with BPAAR, County Law Department, City Law Department and School District, collectively "Defendants"). Plaintiff alleges that this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over his action pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1331, as he asserts claims against Defendants arising under the United States Constitution.

In particular, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants failed to provide notice of tax assessments for commercial real estate owned by him for the years 2000 through 2009, and thereby precluded any appeals as to the assessed value of the property. Plaintiff claims that Defendants' conduct violated his equal protection, procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The School District has filed a Motion to Dismiss, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, contending that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims, because of the preclusive effect of a final state court judgment in an action filed by Plaintiff raising the same issues and arising out of the same facts. [ECF No. 15]. Defendants BPAAR and the County Law Department have filed Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, contending that the allegations set forth in Plaintiff's Complaint fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, given the availability of an appeal procedure nunc pro tunc. [ECF Nos. 17, 19]. Defendant City Law Department joins in each of the Motions to Dismiss filed on behalf of co-Defendants, and further asserts that because the City of Pittsburgh is not the relevant taxing body, no claim against it can be sustained. Defendants seek dismissal of this action with prejudice, given the apparent futility of permitting any amendment to Plaintiff's complaint. [ECF No. 28].

For the following reasons, it is apparent that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the Tax Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1341, and, accordingly, this action is dismissed for want of jurisdiction and the Motions to Dismiss at ECF Nos. 15, 17, 19 and 28 are denied as moot.


Plaintiff is the owner of commercial real property, identified at 4073 Liberty Avenue, located in the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County.[1] For the period December 14, 1999, through at least February 2010, Plaintiff was incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail. Plaintiff alleges that for the entirety of his incarceration, the property has been "boarded up." Plaintiff alleges that on December 21, 1999, he sent a handwritten letter to "Allegheny County real Estate taxes and City of Pittsburgh" providing each entity with his new mailing address at the Allegheny County Jail.[2] However, Plaintiff claims that for the period 2000 through 2009, Allegheny County forwarded all property tax assessment notices, including changes to the valuation of his property, to the mailing address of the property, rather than to Plaintiff's prison address. Plaintiff alleges that as a result of this error, he was deprived of an opportunity to challenge his assessment during each of the years of his incarceration and his due process and equal protection rights were violated.

In the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he pursued the violation of his rights in Pennsylvania state courts. The docket in the state court action reveals that Plaintiff appeared before the BPAAR on March 17, 2011, challenging his assessment for each of the years 2000 through 2010, and alleging that his due process rights were violated because he did not receive proper notice of the assessed value of the property.[3] See, No. BV-11-000611 (Court of Common Pleas Allegheny County, Pennsylvania), Document No. 1. On March 21, 2011, the BPAAR denied Plaintiff's appeal for tax years 2001-2009. Plaintiff delayed appealing the decision until July 12, 2011, when he filed a petition to appeal nunc pro tunc in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny, challenging Allegheny County's failure to properly serve Plaintiff with a Notice of Assessment Change for each of the years at issue by mailing the notices to the jail address provided in 1999, and contending that the County's conduct "has deprived Petitioner of due process and the opportunity to file a timely appeal." In response, Allegheny County raised the defense of laches, arguing that Plaintiff's inaction for nearly twelve years barred the equitable relief requested.

On July 22, 2011, the Honorable R. Stanton Wettick, Jr. entered an Order granting Plaintiff's petition, but limited his appeal to tax year 2010. Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration, again raising the alleged violation of his due process rights. On July 29, 2011, Judge Wettick vacated his earlier order, and entered a rule to show cause on each of the tax authorities, ordering each to show why the petition should not be granted. On August 26, 2011, the trial court ordered Defendants to file answers, permitted discovery depositions in accordance with Rule 206.7 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, and scheduled argument so the parties could be heard. No. BV-11-0006111 (Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Pennsylvania, August 30, 2011). On December 19, 2011, the trial court denied Plaintiff's petition nunc pro tunc. The trial court, in a Memorandum and Order of Court, found fault with Plaintiff's inaction:

I agree with the taxing bodies that if petitioner, rather than petitioner's wife, was assuming responsibility for the property [during his incarceration], petitioner had an obligation to make inquiries during the ten-year period as to the annual assessments/tax notices. If petitioner was assuming responsibility for the property, he would have known that he should be receiving assessment and tax notices for each year. He would also have know[n] that for whatever reason his letter furnishing a new address had not resulted in the mailings coming to him.
An appeal nunc pro tunc cannot be granted unless the property owner has exercised reasonable diligence.... If a party promptly files a request to appeal nunc pro tunc on the ground that it did not receive notice of the assessment, a court may allow the late appeal. However, this case law does not apply where a property owner fails to promptly act after he knew or should have known that he was not receiving assessment and tax notices.

No. BV-11-000611 (Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, December 19, 2011).

Plaintiff appealed the trial court's decision to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, again arguing that his due process rights were violated by Allegheny County's failure to forward the assessment/tax notices to him at the Allegheny County Jail address. The Commonwealth Court reviewed the applicable tax assessment appeal procedures and the conditions upon which a judicial extension may be granted.

On appeal, Smalis reasserts the same contentions in support of his request to appeal nunc pro tunc. There is no dispute that the time periods to challenge the assessments for tax years 2000 through 2009 have long since passed. Nor can there be any dispute that the statutory time limits for filing a tax assessment appeal are mandatory and a judicial extension of the period for appeal is generally not granted. See generally Connor v. Westmoreland County Bd. of Assessment Appeal , 143 Pa. Cmwlth. 86, 598 A.2d 610, 612 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1991). Leave to file an appeal nunc pro tunc may be granted, however, when the petitioner demonstrates that extraordinary circumstances, such as fraud or its equivalent, or negligence on the part of administrative officials, has led to the untimely appeal. Id . In Connor, this court noted that the failure to properly send a notice may constitute a breakdown in administrative operations, deemed to be ...

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